San Diego Needs a Permanent Homelessness Policy, Theisen Claims

Members of the Coronado Roundtable were treated to an in-depth look at the problem of homelessness in San Diego recently when Thomas Theisen, the immediate past president of the San Diego Regional Task Force on Homelessness, a retired patent litigation attorney and longtime community volunteer, addressed the issue.

Theisen discussed how other communities such as Houston, Chattanooga, Fresno, and the state of Utah have significantly reduced their situational homeless and chronic homeless populations, the latter defined by the Federal Housing and Urban Development Department, as those who have been homeless for more than twelve months and are disabled. Many cities and some states (Connecticut and Virginia) across America have completely eliminated veteran homelessness.

The situation in San Diego is not as rosy. Total homeless grew from 8,506 in 2014 to 9,116 in 2017. The chronic homeless population grew from 1007 to 1750 (an increase of 72 percent) during the same period, and is especially serious. Veteran homeless population decreased from over 600 in 2015 to 454 in 2017, but is still a major problem.

While San Diego was a pioneer in transitional housing like Father Joe’s Village, which provides dormitory-style accommodations for 12-18 months, Theisen said such programs are generally not successful. They create a revolving door for the homeless, under-serve the chronic homeless, and provide short-term benefits at best. The same is true of homeless “safe zones” with temporary tent housing.

Theisen said that San Diego’s major problem is the lack of adequate permanent housing for the homeless. It needs to adapt what he calls a “Homeless First” policy, wherein the homeless are immediately moved into permanent, not transitional, housing, and their individual circumstances, such as the cause of their homelessness, substance abuse, and mental illness are subsequently addressed. This “Housing First” policy has been very successful in getting the homeless off the streets in New York and Seattle.

San Diego’s lack of low-income housing is exacerbated by high cost, a lengthy permitting process and, most importantly, its low priority with the local government. It needs a strong advocate and aggressive leadership.

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

Photo by Susan Madden Lankford

In closing, Theisen stressed the following points:
-75 percent of San Diego’s homeless are local and 95 percent of the 5000 interviewed in 2017 said they would move off the street if affordable housing were available.
-What should one do when a homeless person asks for money? Reply” I’m sorry, I don’t do that.” Better still, take them to a fast food restaurant and buy them a meal. Giving money may make you feel better, but offers them no benefit.
-The most important thing local citizens can do is support affordable housing and become an advocate for them with their elected representatives.

© Humane Exposures / Susan Madden Lankford

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